First, you need an idea

By Alexandra Sokoloff
I am at Bouchercon, with Brett, JT, Steve, Kaye Barley, and other Murderati regulars.   SO many questions from so many apsiring authors.   But they’ve already made a gigantic leap in their careers by committing to B’Con. 
This is something I’ve been talking about and thinking about, here:
When people ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?”, authors tend to clam up or worse, get sarcastic – because the only real answer to that is, “Where DON’T I get ideas?” or even more to the point, “How do I turn these ideas OFF?” The thing is, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not the real question these people are asking. The real question is “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest – for 400 pages of a book?” Or more concisely: “How do you come up with your PREMISES?”
Look, we all have story ideas all the time. Even non-writers, and non-aspiring writers – I truly mean, EVERYONE, has story ideas all the time. Those story ideas are called daydreams, or fantasies, or often “Porn starring me and Edward Cullen, or me and Stringer Bell,” (or maybe both. Wrap your mind around that one for a second…)
But you see what I mean.
We all create stories in our own heads all the time, minimal as some of our plot lines may be.
So I bet you have dozens of ideas, hundreds. A better question is “What’s a goodstory idea?”
I see two essential ingredients:
a) What idea gets you excited enough to spend a year (or most likely more) of your life completely immersed in it – and
b) Gets other people excited enough about it to buy it and read it and even maybe possibly make it into a movie or TV series with an amusement park ride spinoff and a Guess clothing line based on the story?
a) is good if you just want to write for yourself.
But b) is essential if you want to be a professional writer.
As many of you know, I’m all about learning by making lists. Because let’s face it – we have to trick ourselves into writing, every single day, and what could be simpler and more non-threatening than making a list? Anything to avoid actual writing!
So here are two lists to do to get those ideas flowing, and then we can start to narrow it all down to the best one.
List # 1: Make a list of all your story ideas
Yes, you read that right. ALL of them.
This is a great exercise because it gets your subconscious churning and forces it to choose what it truly wants to be working on, and with a little help from the Universe you could find yourself writing the next Harry Potter or Twilight. And it gives you an overall idea of what your themes are as a writer (and very likely the themes you have as a person). I absolutely believe that writers only have about six or seven themes that they’re dealing with over and over and over again. It’s my experience that your writing improves exponentially when you become more aware of the themes that you’re working with.
You may be amazed, looking over this list that you’ve generated, how much overlap there is in theme (and in central characters, hero/ines and villains, and dynamics between characters, and tone of endings). You may even find that two of your story ideas, or a premise line plus a character from a totally different premise line, might combine to form a bigger, more exciting idea.
But in any case, you should have a much better idea at the end of the exercise of what turns you on as a writer, and what would sustain you emotionally over the long process of writing a novel. Then just let that percolate for a while. Give yourself a little time for the right idea to take hold of you. You’ll know what that feels like – it’s a little like falling in love.
List # 2: The Master List
The other list I always encourage my students to do is a list of your ten favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing, or if you don’t have a premise yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written.
It’s good to compare and contrast your idea list with this IDEAL list. This list of ten (or more, if you want – ten is just a minimum!) – is going to be enormously helpful to you in structuring and outlining your own novel. Now, all of your novelists may be wondering why I’m asking you to list movies as well as books. Good question.
The thing is, for the purposes of structural analysis, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.
It’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel, which makes looking at films that are similar to your own novel story a great way to jump start your novel outline. And just practically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of classic and blockbuster films and the film techniques that got them that status can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.
And even beyond that – studying movies is fun, and fun is something writers just don’t let themselves have enough of. If you train yourself to view movies looking for for some of these structural elements I’m going to be talking about, then every time you go to the movies or watch something on television, you’re actually honing your craft (even on a date or while spending quality time with your loved ones!), and after a while you won’t even notice you’re doing it.
When the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.
So go make your lists, and if you feel inspired, let’s talk about some of your results!

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4 thoughts on “First, you need an idea

  1. Louise Ure

    “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest – for 400 pages of a book?”

    This is the question that keeps me sleepless at night. It’s not the idea or even the premise that stops me, it’s the notion of stringing that idea out for 400 pages. Is this idea big enough? Does it have legs?

  2. Alli

    Here’s my list of my all-time favourite movies (didn’t even think about TV shows, although some of those have been great inspirations):

    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    The Sixth Sense
    Four Weddings and a Funeral
    Love Actually
    Ocean’s Eleven (original)
    The Italian Job (original)
    The Usual Suspects
    Star Wars IV
    V for Vendetta
    Nine Queens (Argentine heist movie)

    And boy oh boy, I can see where I got inspiration for my last MS – and I can also see why the current idea I’ve been kicking around for a new MS has come from. I guess my list is Romantic Comedy, Thriller (action and psychological) and Paranormal – exactly the kind of cross-genre I write. This is very interesting indeed!

    Thanks so much for the post today Alex! And I love watching a movie and telling myself I’m "studying writing". 🙂

  3. Allison Brennan

    Shiver. I couldn’t jinx myself by thinking how to turn ideas off. Fortunately, I don’t think I could if I tried. It’s how we’re wired, isn’t it?

    For inspiration–not so much for story ideas but for pacing and tone and the overall fabulous storytelling–I watch THE MATRIX often. I’ve watched it probably five or six times this year. SUPERNATURAL as well, because it reminds me how to keep a paranormal story grounded in the real world, while also keeping the focus on the single most important thing: the characters. And HEROES has re-kindled some sparks–after season two I was disappointed (writers strike) but season three has given me hope again. An it’s ALL about the characters in that show, particularly the depth and the shades of gray and flaws in many of the characters. (though the action scenes are good too.) I’m also liking FRINGE for the aspect of grounding police procedures/investigations in the real world while introducing fantastical elements and keeping it "real" without being too cute or too unbelievable. And again? Character.

    I’ve had to toss ideas because they couldn’t sustain a story; others I’ve put aside for a time until I needed them. And one thing I don’t think that non-writers truly understand when they ask the "idea" question is that it’s never ONE idea for a book. It’s a symphony of ideas, dozens, maybe hundreds of ideas, mostly small, that taken together create a bigger story. Every character’s backstory came from multiple ideas; every plot twist comes from different ideas intersecting. It’s something I’ve never quite been able to wrap my mind around, because if I take any of my books, I can identify where all these little parts originated . . . often several ideas merging into one.


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